You don’t watch a sitcom to learn about poker, just like you don’t buy PIOSolver for the lols. But poker games have long been a staple in sitcom land, where they are a perfect device for bringing together a group of disparate characters and placing them under duress, forcing them to explore the extremes of their personalities.
In his superlative study Poker & Pop Culture, historian Martin Harris finds examples of poker games in sitcoms from I Love Lucy through M*A*S*H to Friends and The Office.
“A poker game is obviously a great way to introduce characters who tend not to change or develop very much from show to show,” Harris writes. “In sitcoms especially, conflicts tend to be resolved by the end of each episode, essentially resetting the characters to where they were at the start. (It’s useful for later syndication when the shows are often viewed out of sequence.) In a way, traditional TV sitcom series…are themselves like weekly poker games featuring the same players over and again, with no one winning or losing too much and everyone always able to ‘stay in the game,’ so to speak.”
Larry David’s post-Seinfeld vehicle Curb Your Enthusiasm is currently airing its 10th season on HBO, and it featured a poker game during its second episode — at least the third time Larry and friends have sat down to play cards in the show. This is also the show on which Erik Seidel once appeared as a background artist, so Curb’s links with poker run deeper than most.
If it’s not too po-faced, it’s worth taking a quick look at the poker games of Curb Your Enthusiasm, examining how arguably the greatest sitcom writer of the modern era uses poker for laughs, for plot development and as a tool for character study. It’s not perfect, but it’s prettty, pretttty good.
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The Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm is an abrasive, unapologetic, middle-aged, privileged, rich, white guy who has a habit of extracting the very worst from everyone he ever encounters. It’s one of the show’s small miracles that he’s also relatable and often sympathetic. I honestly don’t know how Larry David, the writer and actor, pulls it off.
By the time of the episode titled “The Shrimp Incident”, from the show’s second season, most viewers will be accustomed to Larry’s many unconventional views and tendencies. But the poker scene underscores just how transgressive Larry can be, particularly amid the superficial preciousness of the TV industry in Los Angeles. He demonstrates just how little he values artificial niceties, content to engage in career self-sabotage rather than conform.
Larry and his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) receive an invite to a poker game from their friend Julia Louis-Dreyfus, best known for playing Elaine in Seinfeld. The game is hosted by an executive at HBO named Michael Halbreich (Sam Pancake) at a time when Larry and Julia are hoping to pitch a new show to the network. Larry has already alienated himself from the head of HBO after a long-standing feud turned petty over some apparently missing shrimp from an order of Chinese food (it’s complicated), but he inks his name on the black-list by his behaviour at the poker table, specifically an insult he hurls at the host.
It’s dealer’s choice and during a round of two-card guts — a volatile game of bluff and nerve in which players are either “in” or “out” and pots can prove either extremely profitable or costly — Michael folds ace-high allowing Julia to win a pot of around $800, uncontested. “I had a six and a ten,” Julia meekly admits, turning Larry’s ire to Michael.
Though he has never socialised with Michael before, and he and Cheryl are only last-minute additions to the game, Larry loudly and repeatedly labels Michael a “c—” for not “going in with ace-high”, earning universal censure and forcing a premature end to the game. Larry is characteristically unrepentant, insisting his use of the word was justified, though eventually conceding: “Maybe in retrospect I should have said ‘pussy’.”
The poker game here is the perfect setting to dissolve Larry’s wafer-thin veneer of politeness, and to drive the plot — a conflict between Larry and all TV executives — as it pitches our anti-hero versus the otherwise placid Michael. It’s also far from a coincidence that Larry is convinced that Michael is gay, despite his wife and children (“It’s a word you use when someone doesn’t act manly,” Larry says), though equating weak-passive poker with homosexuality is probably not Larry David’s finest moment.
However, this is Larry at his most extreme, scabrous and unforgiving. Anyone who carries on watching the show from this point on knows what they’re getting themselves in to.
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“So I guess we probably won’t be invited back to there,” Larry muses to Cheryl as they walk back to the car after the c-bomb controversy of “The Shrimp Incident”, but luckily there are other games in this town.
Larry returns to the poker table in season five, when he is the guest at what seems to be a regular poker game featuring his manager and best friend Jeff (Jeff Garlin) and a number of other buddies including the host, actor Kevin Nealon. During the course of the game, Kevin receives a phone call and learns that his brother-in-law has attempted suicide — the same brother-in-law whom Larry insulted the previous evening. Kevin and his wife rush out of the house, leaving the poker buddies with a tough decision: do they abandon the game and go home, or carry on, even though their hosts, suffering a family crisis, are absent?
What follows is a brilliant conversation between the remaining players as they quickly find every reason to remain.“We are here, and I had to really finagle to get out tonight,” one says.
“We don’t know the alarm code or anything,” Larry adds, and he’s supported by another player insisting: “We don’t have keys.”
Another player remembers, “And a pizza is coming.”
Eventually, the clincher: “And he tried. He didn’t actually kill himself.”
The game continues, the pizza arrives, whiskey is downed, and Larry is busy puffing on a fat cigar by the time Kevin returns home. The poker players are quickly ejected by an outraged Kevin, disbelieving that the game would continue in the circumstances.
This is just a delightful and hilarious scene, emphasising how deeply ingrained poker is in American buddy-culture and the lengths to which enthusiastic players will go to keep a game going. The genius lies in how creative the poker buddies are in their excuse-making, convincing one another that staying and playing is the right thing to do. We are pulled on to their side — their reasoning seems sound — until we realise thanks to the jarring return of Kevin how tasteless the behaviour has become.
It’s a triumph too of Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s production methods, which draw heavily on improvised dialogue among actors who are often friends away from the camera, and who have all passed improvised auditions playing opposite the real Larry David. (Read an excellent recent profile of David in GQ for more on the Curb audition process.) The way the buddies toss out the excuses is reminiscent of a writer’s room brainstorm, with each member outdoing the last.
It’s perhaps no surprise after his performances at the two other poker games that Larry is the host on the third occasion poker is featured in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Maybe he is barred from everywhere but his own kitchen table.
The poker game gets a much longer airing in the episode titled “Side Sitting” and features several characters we already know from many episodes past: Leon Black (J.B. Smoove), Swat (Dean Sharpe), Richard Lewis and Jeff Garlin playing themselves, as well as Cousin Andy (Richard Kind), whose whiny peevishness makes him a ready antagonist to the ever-brusque Larry. The showdown in the featured hand sets Larry against Andy, where both play very much according to type.
The game is Texas hold’em this time around, for what looks to be something like $1-$2 stakes. Though there are a couple of continuity errors, it is a mostly believable game, especially if you consider continual interruptions, folding when checking was an option, some shocking strategy mistakes and multiple etiquette breaches to be all part and parcel of kitchen-table, home-game poker.
We pick up the action just as Cousin Andy is dealing a flop and a pot of something like $30 is in the middle. (There are nine white chips, three red chips and one black chip in the pot, and we learn that whites are $1 and reds are $10. There’s no indication what the black chip represents.) The flop is 7♥K♣2♥, and Andy helpfully commentates: “Possible flush, no straight.”
Leon and Swat quickly check, leading Richard to bet “two”. He puts two white chips forward. Jeff calls and Larry calls. Cousin Andy doesn’t announce a call, but also seems to still be in. It appears that Leon and Swat also call, though we neither hear nor see confirmation. Regular home-game players in the audience will then roll their eyes in recognition as Andy starts to talk to Larry instead of dealing the turn. Action is complete, but Andy wants to know why Larry didn’t attend a charity fundraiser event arranged by Andy and his wife.
Larry now pulls a stone-faced bluff, denying that he received an invite to the event, insisting it must have got lost in the mail. “It stinks, I would have gone to that!” Larry lies, exchanging a knowing nod with Jeff, who is most in tune with Larry’s relationship of convenience with the truth. A credulous Andy buys the lie and deals the turn.
During Larry and Andy’s conversation about the invitation, the camera peers at the couple over Richard’s shoulder, giving us an accidental glimpse at his cards. He has flopped two pair with K♥7♦, explaining his lead out on the flop (albeit a considerable under-bet). The pot now seems to have one black, three red and 17 white chips, which suggests neither Leon nor Swat actually paid to match Richard’s flop bet, but they both still have cards.
“Next card is a ten of spades,” says Cousin Andy, who has correctly burnt a card before dealing the turn. (This small detail suggests that someone on the production team, or maybe Kind, knows the fundamentals of the game.) Leon now folds facing no action, glancing at his hole cards but saying, “I’m out.” He reaches for his beer. Swat checks with a rap on the table. Richard now bizarrely says “I fold” and throws his two-pair away, despite no action so far on this round, and then Jeff also folds. “Really?” Larry says, suggesting his disapproval for weak play still hangs over from “The Shrimp Incident”.
Action is now officially on Larry, but Jeff directs a conversation at our hero, forcing another pause in the poker. The whole table briefly discusses Jeff’s wife’s birthday, and the game continuity breaks down. There is clearly a significant cut at this point because the next thing we see is Andy dealing the river. We get no indication of what Larry or Andy actually do, but the pot now has one black, six reds and 17 whites in it, which doesn’t quite make sense.
The last card is a black nine, and Cousin Andy hears Swat check, then skips past Richard and Jeff, saying, “Go ahead, you guys are out.” He then turns to Larry and says, “I just want you to know, before you bet, I have a pair of aces.”
“OK, twenty bucks,” Larry says, tossing forward two red chips.
Andy calls and shows the aces he claimed to have, but Larry has rivered a set of nines. (Swat’s participation in the hand is never mentioned again.) “That’s unbelievable,” Andy says. “On the river you get a nine. You are the luckiest guy around!”
Andy’s final words are the lead-in to the main plot point of the episode, which is a health scare for Larry, whose doctor has recently been in contact to suggest a series of tests for, among other things, cancer (the other c-bomb). But pausing to look at the poker, we can make a case that the game is used again as a way to build characters and explore their relationships.
Andy’s petulant snivelling consistently irritates Larry, and the poker literate will infer a lot about his character by his refusal to make any kind of bet through a dry flop, turn and river despite holding a pair of aces. That he then complains when Larry is allowed to back into a set of nines only emphasises the point. Larry, for his part, is blithely content to go with the flow and to use the cover of a poker game to tell a blatant lie to his cousin. When the cards then fall in his favour, he is also perfectly happy to squeeze a little bit more value out of his whimpering opponent.
In a scene that has its fair share of continuity gaffes, it might be overstating things to ponder if the producers have inserted a poker-related Easter egg too. Despite folding on the turn, Leon never actually hands his cards back to the dealer, even as Andy begins a shuffle before passing the deck on. Leon has dealer duties next, but also has two cards still tucked behind a bowl of pretzels and pistachios. Everything we already know about Leon suggests he is more than capable of dealing from the bottom of the deck, if the situation demands it.
All in all, there’s nothing we see in Curb Your Enthusiasm to suggest Larry or any of his friends is a particularly competent poker player. There’s also not much to suggest he takes it at all seriously, despite the outburst of expletives in the first poker scene. However, poker plays its common role in sitcom almost to perfection: when characters sit around a table together and are forced to compete, we get revelations, plot motion and a lot of laughs.